Festival review: The Death of Chatterton; Pleasance Courtyard (venue 33)

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IN A Fringe full of student drama productions that often have little to say and acting which is simply reciting lines, it’s tempting to write off all youth theatre as fit only for the cast members of similar productions who help fill seats in a mutual appreciation circle.

Thank goodness, then, for Young Pleasance, which gives teenage actors the benefit of a professional structure. And in this smart literary puzzle by Tim Norton, not only have they produced something which bears comparison with more veteran performers, but something which touches on the theme of what youthful arrogance and jaded experience can bring to each other.

The 18th-century poet Thomas Chatterton is perhaps largely forgotten now, but he was a touchstone; the brilliant young genius who was snuffed out too soon by a cruel world.

As Sir Hugh, a curator at Tate Modern, tells American graduate student Tom, who is researching the painting that mythologised Chatterton’s death, the problem with young people these days is that they insist on trying to interpret everything through their own experience.

And the problem with older people, perhaps, is that they dismiss that youthful passion too quickly – as both Sir Hugh and Chatterton’s own chosen mentor appear to do.

Feeling stifled by his menial copywriting apprenticeship, the young Bristolian yearned for poetic greatness and was prepared to do almost anything to impress a rich sponsor. But perhaps his death was not quite what it seemed.

While the play does a sterling job of explaining Chatterton for non-experts, it seems strange not to include even a sample of his poetry which, after all, is what captured the 18th-century imagination. But graceful dissolves between the modern- day story and Chatterton’s life in the late 1760s don’t over-egg the parallels. The young performers, particularly James Pardon as Chatterton and James Colenutt as Sir Hugh, are excellent in this bracing, witty entertainment.

Rating: ****

Until 18 August. Today: 12:25pm.